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Swords, Cutting and Military History

Deepening your technique: Cutting paper with wooden swords

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A traditional training exercise used in both Japanese and Korean sword arts is the cutting of sheets of paper with wooden swords (bokken);  today we can include any non-metallic practice sword made of artificial materials, so long as it doesn’t come to an narrow sharpish “edge”.  While cutting sheets of paper with the equivalent of a rounded piece of lumber sound improbable,  it can be done easily, provided the student’s positioning, stance, hand grip and cutting technique are all correct.

This is an easy and inexpensive form of practice which can help beginning students understand ranging, improve their stance and cutting techniques, as well as aid in gaining confidence.   Advanced practitioners can move on to some of the more difficult cuts, or aim for accuracy and consistency in their cuts.

Primarily an indoor activity, it’s perfect for practicing on rainy, cold or windy days.

Hard to believe it can be done?  Here are some examples.  Following the videos we’ll discuss some of the technical issues involved in cutting paper with bokken, as well as some information on setting up paper cutting stations:




Paper cutting technique

The cheapest and most easily available paper used for this is newsprint, though in Japan the traditional paper is a much thicker and heavily grained paper.  Note that the larger the sheet of paper, the easier it is to cut, as the weight and mass of the paper help resist the “cutting edge” of your practice blade.  Conversely, for a greater challenge, try cutting smaller and smaller sections.

There’s really no difference in cutting technique between cutting paper with a practice sword and cutting with sharp steel, which is what makes this such a perfect exercise.  It requires the practitioner fully commit to the cut, rotating the wrists so the blade is moving at maximum speed before striking the paper.  As you can see from the videos, when properly made, the cuts look like they’ve been done with a razor blade.

Any deviation from perfect technique will result in the paper tearing or ripping, leaving jagged edges.  If the student has a tendency to turn their wrists while cutting, the tear will move in the direction of their wrist motion, making it very easy to detect.   Poor ranging or improper follow-through (zanshin) will be easily discernible;  if the “cut” in the paper starts below the paper’s edge, the student is too far away.   Improper follow-through will be seen as a perfect cut up to a short distance from the paper’s edge, after which there will be a large tear, as the energy/momentum from the blade transfers as a shock wave into the paper.  If the student is too close, they will be strike below the “sweet spot” of their blade, and the paper will visibly crumple before tearing raggedly.

Note that most paper has a grain, and that the easiest cuts will be with the grain;  in newsprint the grain normally runs from the top of the reading page to the bottom.  Cutting against the grain is extremely difficult, and normally results in the paper tearing unless the practitioner’s strike is perfect.

The easiest strike for students new to cutting is a straight vertical cut down from an overhead position.  A more difficult cut is the horizontal waist cut, since it requires perfect grip and hand motion control.   Advanced practitioners can also attempt diagonal cuts (from the side of the paper through the bottom);  these are extremely difficult cuts, as they are always made partially against the grain.


Cutting stations

As you’ll have seen from the videos above, there’s no single method for suspending sheets of paper for cutting.  We’ll look at a few basic basic methods:

    1. Hand-held:  Probably the oldest and most commonly used procedure is simply to have one or more people hold the sheet of paper, either by the top two corners, or by all four.  Having all the corners held makes cutting paper extremely easy, as it cannot move with a blow, and the tension of being pulled helps separate the grain in the direction of the cut.  If it is held by only the top two corners, then the paper has some “play”, and will respond to poor cuts by tearing.  Concerns:  Obviously, safety is a major concern; this form of paper suspension is not recommended for anyone less than an advanced practitioner.


    1. Frame:  Building a portable frame to suspend paper from, as seen in the first video,  can give you an easily transportable practice device.  String, artificial ropes, or light chain could  be used to suspend the paper from the frame, giving the practitioner unobstructed room to cut either vertically or horizontally.   Clothes pins make excellent clips to hold the sheets, inexpensive and easily replaceable.


    1. Suspension from ceiling:  If your paper cutting station doesn’t have to be mobile, you can simply tie long strings or cord to the ceiling, spaced far enough apart to hang paper from.  Again, simple clothespins threaded on to the string make perfect clips to hold the sheets.  Depending on your needs and inventiveness, you can simply leave the strings hanging between use;  detach the string from the ceiling and store it after practice; or — as we do at our dojo — roll the clothespins and string up into balls and hang them on hooks on the ceiling (using a long-handled hook to reach)


  1. Dropped or thrown paper:  The most difficult way to cut paper with a bokken is to have it dropped or thrown in front of the practitioner.   As the paper is free-floating, it offers very little resistance to the practice sword, and is much more likely to simply crumple than cut.  As you will have seen in the first video, where the practitioner first cuts the bottom of the sheet free, then slices that section while it is in mid-air, is it possible.  Just extremely difficult.


As a final note, you can also practice thrusting through paper with your bokken.  Please note, do not use hand-held suspension when practicing thrusts! The odds of someone reaching too far and striking the holder are simply too great to even contemplate.

Similar to what was mentioned earlier, thrusting through paper with a dull practice blade requires very good technique.  Again, the larger the sheet, the more it masses and therefore the more resistance it provides to the incoming thrust, making it easier to pierce.  The smaller the sheet, the more difficult.

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